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The Stages of a Parliamentary Bill

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Disability Rights UK Factsheet F21

This Disability Rights UK factsheet gives basic information on the stages of a Parliamentary Bill. It is aimed at providing an understanding of the process involved when laws related to benefits and social care are passed.

Introduction

Normally a bill is introduced in the commons but this is not always the case. Sometimes a bill is introduced first in the Lords. In either situation a bill will still have to go through all of the stages mentioned below.

Commons stages of a bill

First reading

This is the formal announcing of the Bill to parliament. There is no debate and the Bill may not be printed at this stage. Explanatory notes are also produced to accompany the Bill but sometimes they are not available immediately upon the publication of the Bill.

Second reading

This is the first opportunity for the Bill to be debated. It is at this stage that the principle of the Bill is discussed. As a consequence the debate is likely to be wide ranging as particular MPs seek to bring out specific aspects of the Bill. This is also the first opportunity for MPs to vote on the Bill and consequently there is the chance that a government bill may be defeated.

Committee stage

After the Second Reading a committee of MPs will be selected to scrutinise the Bill. The membership of the Committee will reflect the state of the parties in the House of Commons which means that there will always be a majority for the governing party.

During this stage MPs will go through the Bill examining each clause and each line within the clauses. If they wish to they are able to propose amendments to particular aspects. Opposition amendments are unlikely to be successful due to the make up of the committee. The Government may sometimes propose amendments if they consider that the Bill is in need of improving.

Report stage

At this point the Bill returns to the whole House to enable them to consider what changes have been made during the Committee stage. The report stage provides an opportunity for MPs who were not members of the Committee to suggest amendments.

Third reading

This is the final stage in the House of Commons. MPs can view the Bill as amended after the two previous stages but cannot suggest further amendments. This usually means that debates are often quite short.

After this most bills are passed to the Lords for scrutiny. Bills which deal with money such as the Budget do not go to the House of Lords.

Lords stages of a Bill

Once the Bill reaches the House of Lords it goes through the same stages as it did in the House of Commons - first reading, second reading etc. The one difference takes place when the Bill reaches its committee stage when the whole House usually acts as the committee.

If the House of Lords disagree with the House of Commons they can amend the Bill accordingly and will then send the Bill back to the House of Commons. The House of Commons will consider the amendments made and if they disagree the House of Lords will have to consider their position again and will usually agree to the Bill as returned to them from the House of Commons.

The House of Lords are most unlikely to reject a government bill more than once but if they were to do so the House of Commons have the option of ignoring them. The House of Commons has the power to override the House of Lords by use of 'The Parliament Act, which sets out the superiority of the Commons over the Lords by virtue of the Commons having been directly elected.

Ping Pong of a Bill

For a bill to become law, both Houses of Parliament have to agree on its exact final form. So if a Commons Bill is amended in the Lords, it is ‘pinged’ back to the Commons for those changes to be considered.

In the Commons MPs can either agree to the changes or reject them and ‘pong’ the bill back to the Lords.

The Lords can then accept whatever the Commons has decided, reject it, or offer a new amendment? It is then pinged back to the Commons. There is no limit to this process but in practice the Parliamentary timetable may limit this if a Bill is in danger of running out of time and failing.

Financial privilege

It is up to an impartial clerk to identify whether a Bill has any tax or spending implications which “engage” financial privilege.

If a Bill or a part of a Bill has “financial privilege” the Commons can oppose Lords amendments to those parts because it has ‘primacy over tax and spending matters’.

Royal assent

Once a Bill has been agreed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords it then goes to the Monarch for approval (Royal Assent) after which it becomes an Act of Parliament.

Regulations

Most regulations (known as statutory instruments) are ‘subject to negative resolution procedure’ and automatically become law without a vote. In rare cases a member of either the Commons or the Lords can make a motion to annul a negative resolution regulation (known as a ‘prayer’). If this is accepted the regulation has to be debated and voted on.

Some regulations are ‘subject to affirmative resolution procedure’. These instruments cannot become law unless they are approved by both Houses.

For more information see the Parliamentary briefing House of Commons Background Paper: Statutory Instruments at http://tinyurl.com/z5kn9ok

Further information

You watch the parliamentary debates and read transcripts of Bill proceedings at http://www.parliament.uk/

Martin Inch
27 February 2017